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You cannot pick your parents. This is one of life's few truths, and it propels us all into a biological crapshoot wherein some are truly born lucky -- and others just seem like they are.
Julian Lennon didn't ask to be born the son of Cynthia Powell and John Lennon 36 years ago in Liverpool, England, where John was about to spring a yet unseen form of pop-induced mania on an international audience, about to get cocky and comfortable with his own immense fame, about to develop into one of the greatest songwriters the world has ever known. Julian also didn't ask to be the five-year-old boy left to his mother's care when his father, infected by the aforementioned mania, left them both (John divorced Cynthia in 1969).
But he did ask for some trouble when he set his sights on a career in music. Since his first foray into the realm of popular music, Julian has tried to make his way as a viable and individual artist while constantly being stacked up against his incomparable father. It's been a mammoth task, but after a seven-year hiatus from the music business, Julian Lennon has decided to give it another go.
Nearly four years after his father's murder, a 21-year-old Julian released the single "Too Late for Goodbyes," which became an instant hit with a still-bereaved public looking for a quick replacement for the bespectacled Beatle. Julian, after all, bore an unnerving resemblance to his father, and with the aid of the then-burgeoning medium of music television, record-company executives made sure everyone noticed the physical -- if not the musical -- similarities between father and son. Julian's debut album, Valotte, sold well in America despite critical jeers. However, on the three albums that succeeded it, The Secret Value of Daydreaming (1986), Mr. Jordan (1989) and Help Yourself (1991), the novelty had worn thin, and so had the music. Today the four-album catalogue is something even Julian himself regards with ambivalence.
"At the time of my first record, I'd just gone through the majority of my music schooling. I was just discovering new ways of writing," he says. "There was pressure. People trying to sell me a certain way, encouraging me to sound as commercial as possible. The truth is, I really did not know what was going on with my own career."
Julian's confusion heightened when he found himself under contract with Atlantic Records after his initial independent, Charisma, dissolved. The pairing was not a happy one. "During that time, I was feeling really frustrated with the people I was working with. There was a serious lack of support," he says. "My song 'Saltwater' [from Help Yourself] did really well in Britain and Europe, and in America, Atlantic just did nothing with it -- they did nothing. There were too many broken promises. I'd have endless meetings with the head of the record company, and nothing ever got done." Disillusioned and creatively tapped, he simply quit -- quit music as a business, hung out in Italy, entertained thoughts of life as a chef, read about karma, wrote songs. "I think [the career hiatus] was really a blessing in disguise," he says. "It gave me a chance to sit down, absorb and reflect on what had happened to me. I worked through most of it and have finally attained some semblance of peace."
The artistic result of these seven years of solitude came in the form of a new record, Photograph Smile, produced by ex-Roy Orbison producer Bob Rose and released on Julian's own Music From Another Room label, which he created to avoid label interference at any level.
"I literally control the day-to-day running of the business," he says. "I'm wearing more hats than I ever expected, but I've got ownership of my own work. I control what happens to it -- everything."
To those who have accused Julian of milking his obvious connection to pop consciousness, Smile will, initially, provide plenty of sneering fodder. The front and back covers both feature black-and-white photos of a very young Julian -- the same little boy familiar from books and newsreels and all of those attempts to anthologize the Beatles on video. A photo and dedication to Julian's stepfather, Roberto Bassamini, accompany a virtual open letter to his family, friends and citizens of the world: "It's been a long hard soulsearching ride up the river of happiness, sadness and love," it reads, "but worth every second in the end." The album's first song, "Day After Day," could have been a rejected B-side to "Fool on the Hill," with Julian assuming deliberate John-esque vocal affectations to a point that borders on satire. The lyric "You've been alone it's true/Daddy's work is never done" is relatively buried in the song, an otherwise straightforward loverly address. To hear Julian spin it, the packaging of Photograph Smile, as well as its content, was intended as a direct hit on preconceptions about his genetic inheritence.
"In a certain way, my life has been an open book, and I just didn't want to carry around all of that baggage," he says. "For the past ten or fifteen years, everyone has made certain assumptions about me as a person and as an artist. I figured I'd just get it out there, address it, air it, express it and move on from all of the bullshit."
The "bullshit" to which he refers -- namely, notions about his father -- is something that gets the otherwise gentle-voiced Julian a bit worked up.
"There are a lot of preconceived ideas out there, which I still don't understand, because there's been plenty of information released which paints a clearer picture of what our lives were actually like," he says. "People still think that everything was jumbly and lovely and we were rich and famous and everything was fine. 'Oh, you're so lucky to have been born into music,' 'A family life with singing and playing. How wonderful' -- that's kind of the attitude. But the truth is, he walked out on us, straight, when I was five freaking years old. I saw him maybe ten, twelve times after that. Period."
According to Julian, he and his mother, Cynthia, both faced a palpable resentment when they first dared speak ill of the dead Lennon. "People do not like to hear the truth. They say they do, but they are incapable of confronting reality as it is," he says. Julian, however, become increasingly vocal in his criticisms of John and his approach to fatherhood. ("One of the few things Dad did teach me is how not to be a father," he says.) He's also taken aim at Yoko Ono, whom he often refers to as "No Talent" and whose handling of the Lennon estate he openly criticized on a recent broadcast of Howard Stern's show. Yet he is quick to mention that it was John who sent him his first guitar, though Julian learned to play it from a gymnastics teacher at an English day camp. And, after all, it was John who penned countless songs that have influenced practically every pop songwriter to follow, progeny or no.
Despite his personal confusion over his unrealized relationship with John, Julian holds the Beatles in the same kind of artistic awe as does most of the musical world. Pressed to name a favorite Beatles record, he exclaims, "That's an absolute impossibility!" Then he offers Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, citing the "uniqueness of its approach. The way it was structured, it was unlike anything that had come before. A true original. Though I think that had a great deal to do with [Beatles producer] George Martin. They wouldn't have been nearly what they were if it wasn't for George.
"I've actually been quite pleased with some of the comparisons of a different kind," Julian admits. "Someone said that my new record reminded him of what the Beatles might be up to if they were making music today. So that was quite nice."
Though Photograph Smile as a whole is, well, quite nice -- moody, melodious, quiet, confessional, largely sincere and often good -- to say it represents a direction the Beatles might have followed is a stretch by any system of measurement. The record does clearly align the young Lennon with the songwriting approach of one bandmember, though. It's a popular bar-room theory that, in the musical realm at least, the world is made up of two kinds of people: You're either a John person or a Paul person. The former tends to prefer the elder Lennon's raw, roving, intellectual and weirder musical dares to McCartney's perfectly crafted, melodious, safe and sincere pop precision. Julian, it turns out, is a Paul person. That McCartney would exert an influence on him isn't so surprising, in light of history: Paul wrote "Hey Jude" to comfort him in the wake of his parents' divorce and is the only Beatle to remain in contact with Julian and, to a lesser degree, Cynthia. And like McCartney's, Julian's songwriting is at its strongest when he remains a strict and exacting alchemist of the four elements of song: melody, music, lyrics and performance.
"I feel that sometime during my break, I just got it -- it sunk in. It's like I found a key or something," he says. "I've always revered songwriting as a craft, and my approach to it has always been very serious, very studied. It's a tremendous task to try to convey an experience through song, with honesty, to relate emotions to other human beings. I feel with this record I've really proved myself as a songwriter."
Julian doesn't foster any desires to reach the same level of influence and fame as his father, which is a good thing; it would be impossible. Rather, he seems content to exist as a pleasant if predictable songwriter, for whom suffering and privilege have co-existed as a paradoxical birthright.
"As far as my relationship to music and the business goes, it's simple: I'm going to continue making music, and I really don't care who likes it or not. Those who like it will buy it. I'm going to play my music in cities and clubs, and those who want to hear it will show up. I believe in what I do, and I no longer have the patience or the desire to try to prove something to people who don't."
Sounds like young Jude is finally heeding some of that famous advice.